How did the Middle Ages affect Europe?


Julia King

To person

Born 1974 in Hamburg, 2003 M.A. in Jewish Studies and History at the University for Jewish Studies and the Ruprechts-Karls-Universität Heidelberg. Associate at the Ignatz Bubis Chair for the History, Culture and Religion of European Jewry at the University for Jewish Studies in Heidelberg.

"Christ murderer", "usurer", "haggler": hostility towards Jews has a long tradition. From antiquity through the Middle Ages to modern times, a negative image of the Jews was solidified, charged with anti-Jewish myths and clichés.

Anti-Semitic postcard

Anti-Semitism in Antiquity and the Middle Ages

Anti-Semitism has a long tradition, the roots of which go back to antiquity. But it was only with the connection of Christian theology and hostility towards Jews to anti-Judaism that the latter spread across the entire Christian-Western area. A negative image of Jews had been established since early Christianity, and the various anti-Jewish myths and clichés from which it was fed shaped the mindset and penetrated deeply into the mentality of European societies. Religiously and economically motivated prejudices remained predominant until the early modern period.

At the beginning of the traditional hostility towards Jews, there was the conflictual process of detachment of the early Christians from Judaism, which manifested itself in the competition for true faith, for adherence and for recognition by Rome. This gave rise to an anti-Jewish tradition, which in part was able to tie in with internal Jewish disputes, as reflected in the New Testament. The Christians' understanding of themselves as "Verus Israel" ("True Israel") in the new covenant led to the Jews being denied belonging to the covenant of God. They were accused of having rejected Jesus as Messiah, betrayed him and crucified him. Thus, according to the Christian view, they were not only to be regarded as enemies of true faith, but as adversaries of Jesus and Christianity par excellence. As murderers of God, so the belief in large parts of the early Church, they were condemned to wander about homeless in the world and to testify to the truth of Christianity through their miserable existence.

This conception of Judaism and the Jewish existence in the Diaspora, founded on theological and salvation history, entered Christian-Western thought as an integral part of the Church's doctrine of the faith. Religious anti-Judaism already took its first and decisive form in the New Testament writings and in the works of the Church Fathers. From here there is a direct line to medieval theology.

middle Ages

Stigmatization and oppression through church law

Since Christianity was elevated to the state religion in the 4th century, the church has not only dealt with Judaism on a religious level, but also curtailed the legally secure area of ​​the Jewish minority as a "permitted religion". The Church countered the obvious continued existence of Judaism with the theory of a continuous witness and servant body of the ("blind") Jews for Christian teaching. The fact that the Jews continue to read the "Hebrew truth" without understanding it in the Christian sense allowed a legally justified acceptance of the Jews, but in a lower social rank. On the basis of the Christian-Jewish conflict of faith, the strict Jewish legislation of canon law was created in a process that lasted for centuries.

Laws were passed at synods and councils (including the prohibition of conversion to Judaism, the prohibition of marriage between Christians and Jews or the common consumption of food) aimed at a strict separation of Christians and Jews and the latter more and more ousted from public life . With the IV Lateran Council in 1215, the social isolation from the Christian population reached a further high point. From then on, the Jews were to be identified externally by marking their clothing as belonging to the people who had been rejected by God. The complete separation of the Jewish from the Christian population was finally demanded in 1267 at the Synod of Breslau. Jews should now only be allowed to live in areas specially designated for them. In fact, as a result, the freedom of movement of Jews was increasingly restricted and, if the Jews were not expelled anyway, hermetically sealed residential areas emerged in many places since the 15th century (initially Frankfurt 1462). The existence of Jews on the fringes of late medieval and early modern society thus increasingly corresponded to the image of Jews in Christian doctrine.

For the Jews, who lived as a minority in Western Christian society, religious anti-Judaism had two devastating effects. On the one hand, church institutions repeatedly drove Jews to compulsory baptism, subjected them to the Inquisition and took part directly in the persecution of Jews. On the other hand, the Church indirectly promoted anti-Jewish attitudes and violent excesses, as the negative image of the Jews it formed found its way into liturgy, sermons, prayers and catechisms. With the religious penetration of the West, hostility towards Jews increasingly spread beyond the group of theologians and became an integral part of popular piety. Anti-Jewish myths and prejudices shaped themselves deeply in the consciousness and mentality of the Christian population of all social classes and formed the starting point for numerous violent riots and pogroms against the Jewish population. These reached their first climax in 1096, when the Jews of the Rhenish cities fell victim to the crusader troops and were either forcibly baptized or killed. Bishops and other church people tried to stand up to protect the Jews; Their widespread failure shows, however, that the complex high theological attitude, which promised protection against submission, could not be communicated on a broad scale. Popular piety and superstition have been directed against the Jews especially since the middle of the 12th century and found concrete expression in the allegations of ritual murder and the sacrifice of the host, first in England and France, then also in Germany and other European countries. Jews were accused of repeating the killing of Christ over and over again by violating the host as the body of Christ or torturing Christian children to death in order to gain blood for their religious rituals. These and other myths were passed on again and again throughout the church year through festivals, pilgrimages, sermons, folk tales and carnival games, but also in the visual and artistic representation and developed in popular piety into powerful ideas that continued into the 20th century for collective outbreaks of violence against Jews. In the middle of the 14th century, when the plague devastated large parts of Europe, the idea was added that the Jews had poisoned the wells. It led to violent pogroms.

Another factor that had been in effect since the 12th century was the connection between religious and economic motives. This is where the stereotype of the Jews as "bargainers" and "usurers", which is still effective in modern times, comes from. Excluded from land ownership and agriculture, the Christian merchants' guilds and handicrafts guilds, the employment of the Jewish population was increasingly limited to the small trade, peddler and junk trade. The money trade against interest played a special role, which according to church dogmatics violated divine doctrine and should therefore remain forbidden to the Christian population. During the fourteenth century, popes and councils repeatedly condemned this money trade, which was decried as "Jewish usury", thus encouraging the animosity of Christian debtors towards their Jewish creditors. As a result, the stereotype of the obdurate and greedy Jew who mercilessly exploited the plight of his Christian environment crystallized out. This image penetrated deeply into people's worldview through legend and saga, folk novel and caricature and found its most prominent embodiment in Shakespeare's 'Merchant of Venice'.